Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Most of Shakespeare’s comedies have a similar delightful plot built upon misunderstandings and misjudgments. Each one features strong female characters and a large complement of self-serving fools. Through them all is a recurring theme: choose wisely if you wish to be happy.
Viola and Olivia, from Twelfth Night, serve to illustrate this point. Each woman must make her way alone at a time when doing so is difficult for women. Viola believes her twin brother, Sebastian, drowned in the same shipwreck that washed her ashore in a foreign land. She no longer has him, her living shield against the dangers in this world. Olivia, on the other hand, has a fine estate with a cadre of loyal, if mischievous, servants, but her brother and father have passed away, leaving her as vulnerable and unsure as Viola.
Both women choose extraordinary defenses. Viola decides to dress as a man so she can seek employment without compromising her virtue, and Olivia locks herself inside the gates of her estate after announcing that she will remain apart for seven long years of mourning. These decisions endanger any joy that each woman might find.
But both women change course and undergo a transformation in order to claim their happiness. Viola must risk the consequences of her self-imposed disguise, and Olivia must rejoin the world. Once each woman has reversed her decisive course, the good fortune characteristic of comedy rewards her, and each lives happily ever after. Viola marries the Duke for whom she once worked, and Olivia marries the once-lost, then found twin brother, Sebastian, a man with a heart as large and a mind as sharp as his sister Viola’s. Thus, Olivia regains a sibling, this time a sister named Viola, and Viola regains her sibling, Sebastian. Once empty lives have grown full.
I think of these gals and their dilemmas often, and I find that their stories inspire me. They, like Atticus, dare convention. He stands against segregation and racial prejudices to defend an innocent man. Viola dares convention as well, arguing that love requires something of us, some conviction in the heart and brain that makes us better human beings, and she lays down her disguise to claim love. Olivia dares convention by falling for and marrying a man who is not her social equal. He is instead a man who stands for courage and family and friendship--all quite good traits in any world at any time, better traits than titles or annual incomes.
I ask, as I think of these ladies: as a nation, have we made choices that jeopardize our pursuit of not just happiness, but life and liberty, too? I believe we have.
We have chosen not to insure that every child has access to a quality education equal to his talents and aspirations. As a result, we have whole communities wherein most children do not escape the socio-economic traps of their birth. They are instead confined to a continuous cycle of low expectations and lower employment opportunities.
We have also chosen not to face our most difficult moral conundrums. We continue to use barbaric methods to grow animals for food. We continue to plead ignorance about our personal responsibility for climate change, and we decry the cost of making this world safe and self-sustaining for our children. We continue to introduce and even pass Draconian legislation built upon the false presumption that people in need of food, shelter or income are hangers-on, ne’er-do-wells, illegal immigrants, and the progeny of hopeless, lazy parents. We also assert that we are the exception, that our torture is not torture after all. And we invoke the Constitution only when it suits us; we are quite content to argue fiercely, even threatening domestic violence, for the Second Amendment, but not so fiercely for Constitutional equality if the labor force in question is of the female gender.
Each of these conundrums endangers the domestic peace. Some citizens have grown weary of being ignored by elected officers; they gather in public protests. Others have spoken or printed angry threats.
These conundrums also deprive some citizens of their happiness, abbreviate the lives of citizens poorly educated, and imprison many in low-income neighborhoods without razor wire fences. Furthermore, if the measure of our humanity is equal to the ways in which we treat the least among us and the beasts, then we must admit that we have not evolved toward enlightenment, that a few of us may be self-actualized, but most of us still struggle with basic biological and psychological needs.
Let us together face and resolve our conundrums. Let us decide and choose wisely. Let us prefer the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for all.